Sunday, February 19, 2023

Race Report: George Washington's Birthday Marathon

On February 19, I ran the George Washington’s Birthday Marathon in Greenbelt, MD.  I signed up for this same race last year, but it was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This race bills itself as the longest-running marathon in the National Capitol area.  It has a long history, but it hasn’t been held every year.  The 2021 and 2022 races were cancelled because of COVID-19, and there have been several other years when the race was cancelled because of winter storms.  Despite the cancellation of last year’s race, I took my chances and signed up again this year.

I was watching the weather forecast, so I was reasonably confident the race wouldn’t be cancelled, but it wasn’t until Thursday afternoon that I got an email saying the race was definitely on.  That’s when they look at the forecast and decide if conditions are safe to hold the race.

Last September, I had a cortisone injection near my L5/S1 joint to relieve sciatic nerve pain in my lower back and right leg.  I was pain-free for about seven weeks, but eventually the pain came back.  At first it was mild and I only felt it intermittently.  In January, it became more persistent.  More recently, it got so bad that running and walking were both increasingly uncomfortable.

On Wednesday, I had another cortisone injection.  By the end of the day, I was already feeling more comfortable.  Over the next few days, I still had occasional discomfort, but it was no longer constant, and it was no longer severe.  Earlier in the week, I couldn’t run without pain.  Now, I could.

The closet major airports to Greenbelt are Baltimore and Washington.  I flew to Baltimore on Saturday and drove from there to Greenbelt.  A few days before the race I learned they were offering an afternoon packet pickup in Arlington for runners coming from Virginia.  That meant the packet pickup in Greenbelt didn’t start until 6:00.  After checking in at my hotel, I went to the fitness center to do some leg and core exercises while I was waiting for packet pickup to start.

At 6:00, I drove to the Greenbelt Youth Center to pick up my race packet.  I got my race bib, but they didn’t have the T-shirts yet.  I wanted to get to dinner, so I asked if I could pick up my T-shirt in the morning.  Then I went to dinner at a pizza place in Hyattsville.

I got to bed early, and I slept reasonably well.  I set an alarm, so I would have time to eat breakfast, but I woke up before the alarm went off.

When I got up, it was 31 degrees, but the race didn’t start until 10:00.  I had to remind myself that it would warm up into the mid-40s by the time the race started, and it would warm up another 10 degrees by the time I finished.

The race started and finished a short distance from the Greenbelt Youth Center.  Parking there was limited, so I got there early to make sure I could get a parking spot.  They had race day packet pickup starting at 8:15.  When packet pickup started, I picked up my T-shirt.

It was more comfortable inside the youth center than it was in my car, so I waited there until it was time to walk to the start.  I saw a few runners I knew, but they were all either too fast or too slow for me to run with them.  There weren’t any pace groups, so I needed to start this race on my own.

In my last marathon, I thought I did well to break 4:30.  I didn’t expect to be any faster in this one.  I just haven’t had enough training lately.  I started at a pace that felt comfortable and didn’t worry too much about my time.

The course was all on roads.  We started with a two mile segment that we wouldn’t see again until the end of the race.

I ran the first mile in 9:46.  That was faster than I planned, but it wasn’t too much of a surprise.  That’s about the same pace that I started in my last race, before I settled down.  The first mile always feels easy.

Ideally, I would’ve slowed down in the second mile, but I was starting to run down a long hill.  Before the race, a friend who has done this race several times told me to save my energy for a big hill near the end of the race.  As I ran down this long hill, I realized I would have to run up the same hill later.

Because so much of the second mile was downhill, I couldn’t help but run it faster than my first mile.  After that, I gradually slowed down.

After roughly two miles, we ran a short out-and-back segment.  We only had to run that once.  When we finished the out-and-back, we started a long loop that we would run three times.

The loop was hilly.  The hills weren’t generally steep, but the terrain was constantly rolling.  Running downhill, I had mild discomfort in my right leg from my sciatic nerve.  The cortisone shot may have helped, but I’m not out of the woods yet.

I actually looked forward to the uphill sections.  That’s when my leg felt the most comfortable.  I was careful not to lift my effort running uphill.  I didn’t worry about my pace.  I tried to keep my effort consistent, so it never felt tiring.

Although we were running a loop, we weren’t always turning in the same direction.  The first two miles of the loop were a bit serpentine.  When I could, I ran the tangents, but the road was open to traffic.  Occasionally, a car would come, and everyone would move to the other side of the road.  Traffic was sparce enough on this section that we never encountered traffic from both directions at once.

There were two spots in each loop that we had to cross a busy road.  There were police stationed at these intersections to hold up traffic when runners were approaching.

About halfway through the loop, we turned onto a road that was much busier.  On the second half of the loop, we sometimes had cars coming from both directions at once.  It was no longer practical to cross the road.  We all kept to the left.  When cars approached in our lane, we moved all the way over to the white line.

I didn’t notice it at first, but the second half of the loop wasn’t as hilly.  It was the easier half of the loop, but I was still slowing down.  By the end of the loop, I wondered if my pace was too lazy.

The last two miles of the loop were into the wind.  It was just strong enough to feel tiring.  It also made my hands cold.  I had taken off my gloves early in the race.

As I started my second loop, I knew what to expect.  The first half of the loop would have less wind and far fewer cars, but it was the hillier half of the loop.  I was quickly reminded of that the first time I ran downhill.  I felt my sciatica again.

I was drinking Gatorade at every aid station.  It was a cool enough day that I probably didn’t need that much fluid.  I passed a pair of port-o-potties, and I was tempted to stop.  I knew I’d need to stop eventually, but I wanted to wait until I was at least half done.  I waited, but I started to regret that decision.  I felt increasingly uncomfortable.

In my second lap, I started putting a little more effort into the hills.  My pace in the last two miles of the first lap was slow, and I wanted to get back to the pace I was running earlier.

Somewhere between 11 and 12 miles, I reached an aid station and saw a port-o-potty.  I was grateful for the opportunity to make a bathroom stop here.  It would’ve been tough to make it to the halfway mark.

When I did reach the halfway mark, I was on pace to finish somewhere between 4:35 and 4:36.  At the time, I didn’t know if the second half would be faster or slower.  On one hand, I felt like I had paced myself conservatively in the first half.   On the other hand, I was noticing my sciatica more and it seemed like the wind was picking up.  I was going to run into that wind two more times, and that might slow me down.

Just past the halfway mark, I turned onto the busier road.  This time, I already knew that this side of the loop was less hilly.  Over the next four miles, I put a little more effort into my pace.

Shortly after I made the turn onto the busier road, I was passed by a faster runner.  I expected the leaders to lap me at some point, but this guy didn’t look like he was going fast enough to be leading the race.  He did, however, quickly pass the next few runners as well.

Within the next few minutes, two other runners passed me.  These guys did look they were running fast enough to be near the front of the race.

I continued to follow the other runners who were still on their second lap.  Then I noticed a runner who seemed much slower.  He had a homemade trekking pole, and all the other runners were passing him.  I wondered if it was possible that he was still on his first lap, and I was already lapping him.  If so, I didn’t like his chances of finishing within the six and a half hour time limit.

My pace improved over the next few miles.  Every so often, I passed someone who was also on their second lap.

Every mile was marked.  Even though I was on my second lap, I could also see signs for the first and third laps.  With about a mile left to go in my second lap, I saw the 23 mile sign for runners who were already in their third lap.

At was at that moment that the lead woman ran by.  She had a powerful stride.  She was probably in 10th place overall, but there was no doubt in my mind that she would pass a few of the men on front of her by the time she finished.

Near the end of my second lap, I started to talk to a runner named Nina.  When I mentioned the lead woman, Nina told me she might have been on a relay team.  I forgot there was also a relay.

Nina asked me if I knew what pace I was on.  I told her I was on pace for about 4:36 at the halfway mark, but I had sped up a little since then.  Nina was really surprised to hear that.  Her goal was to break six hours.  She never expected to be on pace to break five hours, and she wondered if she had been running too fast.

I asked Nina how she felt.  We had already finished 17 miles, and she still felt OK.  I figured she would be fine if she ran conservatively the rest of the way.  I decided to run with Nina and help her get through the last lap.

I had run my 17th mile in 9:54.  That was my fastest mile since mile two.  Before meeting Nina, I was hoping to pick up my effort enough to run negative splits.  Now, I realized I needed to ease up a bit.  I didn’t want to pull Nina along at a pace that wouldn’t be sustainable.

For the rest of the race, I was careful to match my pace to Nina’s and not get ahead of her.  As we ran the hills in the first half of the loop, I still noticed my sciatica running downhill, but it didn’t seem as bad.  Maybe slowing down helped.

For the rest of the race, we talked about running and a few other topics.  I think our conversation made the miles pass more easily for both of us.  We slowed down a little, but it was never much slower than the pace I was running in the second half of my first lap.

We both managed well through the third loop, but we still had to run almost two miles to get to the finish.  With a little over a mile to go, we encountered the long hill I had been expecting.  I let Nina set the pace.  We slowed down, but we got through that mile OK.

The finish line is in a different spot than the starting line.  We eventually left the streets for a narrow path.  We briefly had to run down a hill that was steep enough to be extremely uncomfortable.  I slowed almost to a walk.  Fortunately, that hill was fairly short.  Then we went through a tunnel and saw the 26 mile sign.

As we got within sight of the finish, Nina sped up.  I sped up a little, but I couldn’t match her pace on the final push to the finish.

For the last few miles, I had been telling Nina she would break 4:40.  She did.  I finished several seconds behind her, with a time of 4:39:26.  I didn’t run negative splits, but I was only positive by four minutes.  I was happy with that.

Right after I finished, I was handed a finisher medal.  That surprised me.  Earlier, I had received an email saying that the shipment of medals was delayed by supply chain issues.  I didn’t think they would have them today.  Perhaps I misread the email.

This was my fourth marathon in Maryland.  I’ve now run four or more marathons in 46 states.  To complete my fourth circuit of marathons or ultras in every state, I just need to run marathons in Vermont, Utah, West Virginia, and Oklahoma.  I expect to do that by the end of the year.

Race statistics:
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  4:39:26
Average Pace: 10:39 
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  476
Maryland Marathons:  4

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